By Octavio Zaya
Pilgrimage to Santiago, 2000

ISBN: 84-453-3162-0 84-607-3005-0

Zhang Huan: A Deeper Panic

In 1998, at the New York Asia Society, Zhang Huan presented "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond", 1997, a video that recorded the vicissitudes of the performance of the same name created in China by the artist with a group of emigrant peasants.

Zhang Huan paid the unemployed peasants to execute his project. They entered the pond and, by means of precise, simple choreography, they lined up, dispersed and regrouped to finally stand still in front of the camera. The image of those peasants in the water, looking at us through the eyes of futility, became the emblem of Inside Out: New Chinese Art in the Asia Society, and is now on the cover of its catalogue.

At first glance, Zhang Huan’s performance is no different from the type of instructions we got used to with the Dadaists: John Cage, Fluxus, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneeman,---At any rate, we should motion the New Wave Movement of the eighties, a group of Chinese artists who related Western art and theory to Chinese tradition, getting their inspiration as much from Dadaist conceptualism as from Chan Buddhism.

In the work we are discussing, the proposal is a short poem: a group of people enter a pond in order to raise the level of the water. Zhang Huan, however, managed to overload the performance. There is something tragic in the passiveness of these peasants and in their diligent execution of the instructions. Yet here they are not being exploited to benefit anything, a cause, a product; nor are they exhibited as entertainment. Here they carry out a futile action, just another action among the multiple futilities of existence. "The trendency of self-torturing is not just a personal problem", affirmed Zhang Huan in an interview with Qian Zhijian, and then explained the following:

"It is a common phenomenon, especially so in the present circumstances of China today. In the suburban area of Beijing where we live, there also live thousands of peasants who come from all over the country to make a living selling vegetable. Every morning they have to get up at four o’clock for their work. I believe they wish they could have more time for sleep, like the rest of us. But they can’t. If one has to do something one doesn’t want to do, that is a kind of self-torturing. Everybody has this tendency. Some are conscious of it, while others don’t want to admit it".

On the other hand, there is something deeply poetic and hopeful in this work: the possibility that a group of people can transform, alter things. Such as when Zhang Huan did "To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain", 1995. Then, a group of artist friends of Zhang Huan, who were naked on the mountain, piled on top of each other to make a kind of pyramid of bodies that added one more meter to the height of the mountain.

Zhang Huan, on one hand, challenges logic with logic and, on the other, joins together a personal situation and a local problem to express a collective trauma. In this context we should read his works that have been characterised as "masochistic". The first one he did in the East Village of Beijing, "12 Square Meters", is a good example. Zhang Huan tell us:

"Our village was dirty and messy, surrounded by hills of garbage from the urban area. To the west, tall modern buildings and five-star hotels could be clearly seen. The contrast was very strong. "12 Square Meters", which I realized in the summer of 1994, is closely related to my specific experience in this village. It was noontime one summer day, when I went to a public restroom in the village after lunch. I found the restroom had not been cleaned for quite some time because it had been raining for days. There was no way to step in. I had to walk to another public restroom where the village heads used to go. There was nobody else there. Once I stepped in, I found myself surrounded by thousands of flies that seemed to have been disturbed by my appearance. At that moment I felt as if my body were being devoured by the flies".

To make "12 Square Meters", Zhang Huan spread on his body a visceral liquid of fish and honey to attract the flies in the public restroom in the village. He sat on the toilet, almost immobile, for an hour. Eventually, his body was covered with flies.

As with the rest of the works mentioned, this also relates to the individual and to society, to human tenacity and to human vulnerability, to the conceptual reduction of beings into nothingness and to the complex relationships interwoven between what we are and the awareness of what we are.

The first time I saw him, he made his entrance slapping gloves while he alternately dragged himself, and then got up again, over the gravel at the entrance to New York’s P.S.1. His chest was bare and he had on lightweight pants, maybe made of silk. As he made his way towards the public that waited on the other side, on the stairway leading into the P.S.1 building, traditional Chinese music played and a group of seven dogs that had been tied to the legs of a Chinese bed barked at him.

Impassively, Zhang Huan made his way to the bed, the cushions of which had been replaced by blocks of ice, and he got undressed. Then he lay down on the bed of ice for almost ten minutes, while the dogs barked in confusion and bewilderment.

For those then freezing minutes that went by in New York Fengshui, Zhang Huan wanted to express, on one hand (by using the term Fengshui), "the vitality and vigor of this metropolis characterized by the co-existence of cultures." On the other hand, he confesses that "I do like the city, but at the same time I have an unnamable fear. I want to feel it with my body, just as I feel the ice. I try to melt off a reality in the way I try to melt off the ice with the warmth of my body". Zhang Huan originally conceived this performance as a pilgrimage, merging different Eastern and Western approaches to spirituality. It comes from the difficulty in adapting to the United States. And it is also an attempt to celebrate the new conditions and freedoms he found in this country, based on his own experience.

Up to here, all the works Zhang Huan did between 1994 and 1998 have been directly related to his experience:

"My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And this troubles often ended up in physical conflicts. I often found myself in conflict with my circumstances and felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence".

"This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language".

Zhang Huan has slipped through a territory of cruelty and perseverance that is a general response to his immediate physical and social surroundings.

This territory is a metaphorical space. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes dramatic, it is occasionally characterised by its coarseness and is always loaded with simple, obvious social commentary. In this formless, bordering space where the artist confronts the desolation of urban life, degradation of abandoned public spaces, polluted water and rotting debris, Zhang Huan crosses the limits of what is personal and what is specifically local in order to dissolve the static notions of what is culturally specific and of human geography. Zhang Huan explains that:

"I prefer to put my body in physical conditions that ordinary people have not experienced. It is only in such conditions that I am able to experience the relationship between the body and the spirit".

And later:

"What I mean is that I try to experience the relationship between the physical body and the spiritual body in particularly designated circumstances. I want to make this experience clearer and deeper in some radical situations. Not just for the sake of testing the endurance of my physical body under external pressure, but rather through this process of endurance a deeper panic in the spirit might be released, though perhaps just temporarily".

Elsewhere, Zhang Huan had said that his project allows him "to experience his essential existence" reduced to the level of waste.

What is essential: waste. In all of the work done up to 1998, in one way or another, Zhang Huan has confronted and has made us confront the belief that death and horror are the conditions of existence. In each of these pieces, alone or collectively, suffering is situated in the place of the subject. It is there that the subject emerges, where it is differentiated from chaos, between inside and outside, between ego and other, like the Ferdinand Celine that Julia Kristeva spoke to us about: being as ill-being. As we go over these works by Zhang Huan, including "65 KG"--where the artist suspended himself with chains from the ceiling of his home/studio while a group of doctors and assistants inserted an IV tube that allowed his blood to drip into an aluminium saucer on a lit hotplate--; as I said, when we go over these works, we are seized "at that fragile spot of our subjectivity where our collapsed defenses reveal, beneath the appearances of a fortified castle, a flayed skin; neither inside nor outside, the wounding exterior turning into an abominable interior. A universe of borders, seesaws, fragile and mingled identities, wanderings of the subjects, fear and struggles, abjections and lyricisms".

At any rate, the letter of presentation in the United States that was New York Fengshui did not prepare us for "My America" (previously entitled "Hard to Acclimatize"), the performance he did at the Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle last year.

"My America" is an eloquent portrait of the United States and continues along the more narrative lines of New York Fengshui. "My America" is as much an ironic celebration of the migration of Zhang Huan to the United States as an investigation into the spiritual desolation of American life. In the performance video, we watch as the naked artist, playing the part of a kind of guru or shaman, leads more than 50 Americans, who are also nude, towards a room where a three-story scaffolding structure has been erected. Under the artist’s direction and to the sound of Buddhist singing, they all proceed to execute a series of vaguely choreographed movements. These movements successively cover different gestures related to Tibetan marches, Moslem prostrations for prayer, yoga positions for meditation, other movements from Tai Chi and a short, circular race ending up in an animalist-like eruption of grunts and defiant gestures. Altogether, Zhang Huan presents us with a series of vignettes on the spiritual and health fashions and crazes of contemporary America. The performance is equal parts confusion and joy, as if Zhang Huan were truly fascinated by the frantic search for the meaning of life that characterises and so preoccupies Americans. Until the troop decides to stone him with bread and one of them breaks an egg on his head. So much spirituality, so much violence.

Judging from the latest works, the performance he did last year in Australia, "My Australia", and others that he has been developing to date, Zhang Huan seems to be leaving behind his preoccupation with the body to let the stories, the narrative, take over. Hardly any "masochistic" elements remain:

"This new piece, ’My Australia’, basically didn’t have any of those elements in it. It was already replaced by a different from. The use of smoke for instance represented something disastrous. The body has now become something more literary in my work. Everybody who sees this smoke understands that it’s something evil, catastrophic. It’s an image that lets people imagine these things. I really don’t feel that I need these masochistic aspects anymore. After I did the Toilet piece, and "65 KG", I felt I didn’t need to continue with these kind of pieces".

Even so, these new works still don’t offer a glimmer of the exoticism to which so many contemporary Chinese artists have resorted, nor do they exploit references to classic Chinese culture. Zhang Huan continues to explore the reality of his daily experience, always from the conditions inherent to the places in which they develop. The results is an accumulation of moving stories that tell us of the psychological and physical effects of human violence on our contemporary society. A deeper panic.